If you’ve read books by Progressive Christians or argued with one on social media, you may have noticed that they have a tendency to pit the words of Jesus in the gospels against the words of Paul in the Pauline epistles. Let’s say the topic is homosexuality. You believe that God disapproves of same sex unions, so you quote Romans 1:26-27 which says “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Or maybe you quote 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 which lists “men who have sex with men” among a list of people who won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Although many Progressives try to get around the meaning of these verses by disputing the English translations and cultural arguments see my video “Response To Dan McClelan On The Bible’s Teaching On Homosexuality” for an example of how liberal scholars try to pull this off., you will also get responses “I don’t care what Paul said; I follow Jesus” or “I think Jesus is more authoritative than Paul, and Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.”’
Progressives paint Jesus as this loving, kind, all-inclusive person (and that he is), but Paul is made out to be a bigoted homophobic misogynist who’s teachings should be rejected. It’s clear as to why they do this. If you want certain things to be permissible within your Christian life, then you have to construct a system that doesn’t involve divine disapproval. If you want homosexual unions to be morally permissible, then you have to construct your systematic theology (and your theory of inspiration!) in such a way that homosexuality is now permissible. If you want to argue that women can be pastors, then you have to do something about those texts in the Pauline corpus that seem to rule that out. Now, I for one find biblical arguments against female pastoralship suspect on exegetical grounds. It’s not something I take a hard stance on, but I think scholars such as Craig Keener and David … Continue reading
But motives for wanting to create this divide aside, is this legitimate? I remember one woman in a Facebook discussion asking me “What’s wrong with saying we shouldn’t pit Jesus against Paul? Jesus is God! He’s the word made flesh! Paul was just a man.”
All Scripture Is Inspired, Not Just The Red Letters
I’ve come to refer to these types of liberal Christians as “Red Letter Christians”. Despite the fact that Paul’s letters are in The Bible, they are not seen as divinely inspired and authoritative. The words of Jesus, however, are. The problem is that the whole Bible is divinely inspired, not just parts of it. Let’s take a look at a couple of passages.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” – 2 Timothy 3:16
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” – 2 Peter 3:15-16 (emphasis in bold are mine)
In the first passage, we have an affirmation of plenary inspiration! ALL Scripture is inspired or breathed out by God! All of it! Not just some of it! In the second passage, the apostle Peter recognizes Paul’s epistles as scripture! He puts the letters of Paul on a par with The Old Testament canon! This was well before The New Testament canon was decided a couple of hundred years later. In the very lifetime of the apostles, Paul’s epistles were considered scripture. If all scripture is God-breathed, and Paul’s letters are scripture, then it logically follows that Paul’s letters are God-breathed.
If Paul’s letters are God-breathed/Inspired-by-God, then Paul’s words are from God. What Progressives wind up doing is pitting God’s Word against God’s Word! They aren’t pitting the words of God incarnate against the words of some Pharisee. They are pitting God The Son against God The Holy Spirit! Hopefully you can see how foolish this is! It is foolish to put scripture against scripture. The God who dwelt in the body of Jesus of Nazareth is the same God who inspired Paul to write what he wrote!
All Scripture Is Equally God Breathed, Not Equally Important
When I posted about this on Facebook a while back, someone objected that not all scripture is equally important. My interlocutor wrote “The red letters absolutely carry more weight than the rest of scripture. It must be that way. It’s unavoidable. All interpretations of scripture must comport with the words of Christ. What is ‘foolish’ is to suggest that obscure scripture such as Romans 9 should interpret clear scripture such as Matthew 23:37. The clear always interprets the obscure, and the words of God in the flesh always interpret the words of the apostles. Any other view is an attempt to smuggle nonsense into ‘biblical Christianity’ and refer to it as such.”
I have no qualms with his argument that we should interpret unclear passages of scripture in light of the clear. That’s a basic rule of hermeneutics. However, what “red letter Christians” do is pit God The Son up against God The Holy Spirit. Yet what sense does it make to say that God is more authoritative than God? Why Jesus over the Spirit or vice versa?
The only real ways to get around the argument in the previous subheader is to deny that all scripture is God breathed, or deny that Paul’s letters are scripture (i.e to argue that they shouldn’t have been put in the canon). The only way I can envision coherently conceiving of the words of Jesus as being more authoritative than Romans or 1 Corinthians or Ephesians is if those books weren’t God-Breathed.
I went back and forth with this interlocutor for a while, with him doing things like misrepresenting the doctrine of inerrancy and thinking that because I said all scripture is equally inspired, therefore it’s all equally important. It’s not. That is evident from the fact that you will never see 2 Timothy 4:16 on the mood board in a Christian teen’s room or a coffee mug. “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” Yep, there’s your inspirational verse of the day. Nor is it all that important that we have Paul’s lapse of memory of how many people he baptized jotted down (see 1 Corinthians 1:16). And as Lydia McGrew points out, there are many “Unexplained Allusions” in the gospels; just minute story details that don’t make sense, don’t carry any theological or literary significance, and just seem to be the typical trait of eyewitnesses briefly diverging from the main story to convey some random detail they remembered. See Lydia McGrew’s book “Testimonies To The Truth: Why You Can Trust The Gospels”, DeWard Publishing, January 25th 2023. I also talk about unexplained allusions in my blog post … Continue reading. And I don’t think I have ever quoted from Philemon or 3 John even once in a theological debate. So, no, it’s not all equally important. That wasn’t my claim. My claim was that it’s all equally inspired. And therefore, it is all authoritative in everything the books of The Bible intend to teach. This leads to my next point.
All Scripture Is Equally God Breathed, Not All Inerrant
My Facebook interlocutor characterized inerrancy as “every word of every sentence of every book is wholly inerrant.” I think even the most strict fundamentalist would deny this definition of inerrancy. Not even the most hyper strict fundamentalist would affirm that the lies of Satan, for example, are inerrant! The Bible contains records of Satan’s lies (e.g Genesis 3, Matthew 4), but it’s clearly not putting them forth as teachings to be followed! The Bible is inerrant in all that intends to teach, but Satan’s temptations aren’t on the curriculum. Much of The Bible are historical narratives, and historical narratives are descriptive, not prescriptive by their very nature. Unless you have God specifically issuing commands in the context of that narrative (e.g The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount in Matthew 5-8), it’s just describing events that happened. Now, you can still apply lessons from some of these (“This is what not to do in this situation”), but only if you exegete the text responsibly. See my blog series on the rules of hermeneutics.
For those familiar with my content, you’ll know that I follow the majority of Old Testament scholars in affirming that we find in scripture this sort of Dome Cosmology that was commonly held in the Ancient Near East. Scientifically, this is an error. But I don’t think this counts as The Bible being in error because my view of an error is The Bible erring on what it intends to affirm. So, Genesis 1 teaches that God created the sky. That is a theological truth. It’s not a mistake. And this is true regardless of the fact that it’s not a “firmament”. God conquered disorder and brought order to the world. This is true regardless of the fact that he didn’t literally kill a literal multi-headed monster named Leviathan. I affirm with Gallileo that “The Bible teaches us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” I recommend reading the article “Teaches or Assumes? Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology” by Kyle Greenwood | September 11, 2018 — … Continue reading
There’s much more that could be said on this topic. For example, I haven’t touched upon the ways in which Progressives try to make Jesus and Paul outright contradict each other, nor have I gotten into any nitty gritty detailed discussions on theories of inspiration and differing views on inerrancy, or why we should even believe any of The Bible is authoritative in the first place. That’s why I linked to “Episode 168: What Evan Minton Thinks About The Bible – Part 1” and “Episode 169: What Evan Minton Thinks About The Bible – Part 2” of The Cerebral Faith Podcast. But I think I’ve said enough to show that pitting Jesus against Paul is wrong. The gospel of Matthew is just as God breathed as the epistle to the Romans. Therefore, what both say are important in shaping one’s theology. There is no rationale for pitting the words of Jesus against the words of Paul other than a motivation to force Christian doctrine to bow to what the non-Christian culture affirms and condemns. Of course, even if you stuck with the words of Jesus alone, properly exegeting his words would still make you not very popular with the world. Like I said, I could have said more.
At this point, I want to ask the reader a question; will you be a Red Letter Christian or a Fully Biblical Christian?
|↑1||see my video “Response To Dan McClelan On The Bible’s Teaching On Homosexuality” for an example of how liberal scholars try to pull this off.|
|↑2||Now, I for one find biblical arguments against female pastoralship suspect on exegetical grounds. It’s not something I take a hard stance on, but I think scholars such as Craig Keener and David Wilber make a challenging case to the opposition of female pastoralship. And they do so without throwing Paul under the bus! See Keener’s lecture “Women In Ministry” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyZr-K3STsU and Wilber’s book “Is God A Mysoginist?: Understanding The Bible’s Difficult Passages Concerning Women”.|
|↑3||See Lydia McGrew’s book “Testimonies To The Truth: Why You Can Trust The Gospels”, DeWard Publishing, January 25th 2023. I also talk about unexplained allusions in my blog post “The Case For The Reliability Of The Gospels: Part 6 – Even More Internal Evidence”|
|↑4||I recommend reading the article “Teaches or Assumes? Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology” by Kyle Greenwood | September 11, 2018 — https://henrycenter.tiu.edu/…/teaches-or-assumes…/ and “Genesis 1 – Functional Creation, Temple Inauguration, and Anti-Pagan Polemics” by Evan Minton. — https://cerebralfaith.net/genesis-1-functional-creation…/|